Metaphysics: a 'third stream' of US religion

A few years ago, the American press began reporting an explosive increase of books on spirituality. The explosion continues. As I write, Amazon.com lists 4,747 books on spirituality published in 2006, compared with 1,325 in 1996, and 303 in 1986.

This intense interest in spirituality is the final topic in A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion by religion scholar Catherine Albanese. Albanese shows that this interest has a history as old as America. She also demonstrates that many of the seekers who read and write these books, meditate in church, use psychic methods to aid the police, and employ alternative healers constitute an important "third stream" of American religion.

A more familiar stream consists of liturgical forms of American religion that, according to Albanese, turn "on communally organized ceremonial action." Think of the church on the town green with its fixed, orderly worship service.

Another more distinctively American brand of religion consists of the evangelical forms that favor "the cultivation of strong emotional experience that is felt as life-transforming." Think of the tent meeting in the woods with a revivalist preacher.

Harder to pin down and much less studied is the third or "metaphysical" approach, which "turns on an individual's experience of 'mind' [and has] privileged the mind in forms that include reason but move beyond it to intuition, clairvoyance ... 'revelation' and 'higher guidance.' "

In such systems, "the human world and mind replicate ... a larger, often more whole and integrated universe" within which metaphysicians "find a stream of energy flowing from above.... Moreover, the influx of energy ... that enlivens their world is a healing salve for all its ills and – in the strongest statement of their view – renders [metaphysicians] divine and limitless."

According to Albanese, elements of this third type of religion were already present among the American Indians and in the cultural luggage of both slaves and immigrants at the very beginning of American history.

Subsequently, various elements in this third religious stream combined, separated, and flowed together to appear in Royal Arch Masonry, Mormonism, Christian Science, Theosophy, Macrobiotics, American forms of Yoga and Qi, Positive Thinking, crystal power, spiritualism, the papers of Phineas P. Quimby, early systems of osteopathy and chiropractic, and, today, in yoga classes, quantum healing, and hypnotic therapy.

In tracing today's spiritual seekers all the way back to American Indian shamans and the Cunning Folk of the first New England settlements, Albanese builds on the work of religion scholars, including specialized studies of her own. In the process, she is careful not to overlook the sometimes vast differences between systems in this third stream but is at her best in showing how the same themes appear again and again, separately or in combination.

What Albanese does not do is to linger long enough over any of the systems she describes to give the reader a feel for what drew their followers to them.

For example, we learn that after leaving Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Science Church, Emma Curtis Hopkins taught the founders of Unity, Religious Science, Divine Science, and the Homes of Truth. But we do not learn what attracted Hopkins to both Christian Science and other religious interests.

One might well argue that in order to fit her complex subject into one volume Albanese could do no more than describe individual metaphysical systems briefly in terms of their most external characteristics.

Anyone with an interest in American belief systems and contemporary trends will be well rewarded by reading Albanese's book. Those committed to any of the systems she surveys, however, may find that her scholarly approach focuses so much on externals that it misses the whole point of their religious conviction.

David Nartonis is a writer and researcher in Boston.

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